Grading on a curve

    Inside the blinkered alternative universe of the Republican right, it has lately become an article of faith that Newt Gingrich has the chops to kick President Obama’s butt in the autumn ’12 debates. Indeed, this faith has fueled Newt’s meteoric rise from the political grave.Grassroots GOP voters, having witnessed Newt’s debating skills roughly a dozen times during the Republican intramurals, apparently believe he’s the man best suited to take Obama down. As conservative commentator Matt Lewis remarked the other day, these voters are “champing at the bit” for Newt to “beat up or attack the president rhetorically,” to “intellectually flatten him.”These voters are also in dire need of a reality check.It’s no mystery why they assume that Newt would eat Obama’s lunch. Their hatred of the president is so fierce that it omits all memories of 2008 – when Obama went toe to toe more than a dozen times with sharp-elbowed Hillary Clinton, and then jousted three times with tart-tongued John McCain. I need not point out who prevailed. The assumption that Obama, having been seasoned under pressure, would somehow wilt in the presence of a baggage-laden Washington lifer is truly inexplicable – at least to those of us who dwell outside the conservative bubble.Newt is indeed good on stage. He’s assertive, mentally agile, and fast on his feet. But he has been matched this year against a motley crew of minor-leaguers, some of whom know very little or talk as if English was their second language. Newt definitely looks like a world-class Obama beater – as long as you grade him on a curve. So far, he’s a minor-league hitter who has fattened his batting average by feasting on substandard pitching.A related point: Standing on stage with the president of the United States, in front of a mass viewing audience that features independent swing voters, is quite different than debating on cable TV amidst the cheering and yahoo booing of right-wing partisans in the peanut gallery. It’s fine and dandy, in a Republican debate, for Newt to diss his media inquisitors, because that kind of ‘tude plays well with the base (hence his poll ascent). But, regardless of what conservative grassrooters seem to assume, general-election debate viewers don’t react favorably to red-meat insults and peevish condescending arrogance. As one anti-Obama blogger warns, “Whining about how stupid the media are, or (how stupid) their questions are, is not presidential. It makes the nominee look small, and small candidates don’t win elections.”So Newt would need to sand down his rough edges to play well in the dignified autumn forums – it would be too risky to let Newt be Newt – and that might sour the nouveau Newt fans who fantasize about him playing rough.  They’d also be well advised to consult recent history and take note of how badly Newt fared when he went toe to toe with President Clinton during the ‘90s (in political combat, not in debates). House Speaker Newt was often petulant and undisciplined. As ’90s-era conservatives well remember, Clinton basically cleaned his clock. (And would you care to guess how many of Newt’s conservative House compadres have come forward to endorse his presidential bid? Not. A. Single. One.)As attorney and blogger Doug Mataconis rightly pointed out the other day: “The difficulty of competing (on stage with a sitting president) shouldn’t be underestimated. Just ask people like Walter Mondale, Bob Dole, and John Kerry.” The latter is a good example. Many Democrats hated President Bush so much, and derided his debating skills so intensely, they just assumed that the mantle of incumbency wouldn’t mean squat during the ’04 debates. We all know how that election turned out.Bottom line? Republicans who anticipate a Newt smackdown of Obama should be careful what they wish for.——-There’s no wi-fi at 35,000 feet, which is where I have spent most of today. More travel will probably wreak havoc with tomorrow’s timetable as well.——-Follow me on Twitter, @dickpolman1

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